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As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

How Should Students Show Their Math Work?

In this post, I am pinging off Maria Miller of Math Mammoth. I recommend Math Mammoth for its concept-based lesson development and worksheets.

Many students resist showing their work. They feel they are demonstrating their smartness by not showing their work, as in “See, Ma. No work.” However, when you ask these students how they got the answer, they cannot remember what they did. Sometimes they say they used a calculator. OK, I say, but what numbers did you put into the calculator? They cannot tell me. I explain that since we cannot record thoughts the way we can record voices, students need to make a record of their thoughts when they solve a problem. Dispensing with the work is not actually smart at all.

Now, here is where we see the real difference between strong students and weak students. Strong students respond to my words, and start showing work ever after. Weak students respond (eventually) only to action. I make them do their homework again, and I mark right answers wrong if there is no work.

As Maria says:

The purpose of writing down the work allows someone else to follow the person's thought processes. This is of course important for students to learn no matter what their future occupation: they need to be able to explain to others how they solve a problem, whether a math problem or a problem in some other field of life!

As strong as Chinese math teachers tend to be, they do not encourage students to show their work. Chinese teachers expect “clean” papers, with only answers. Chinese teachers check whether answers are right or wrong. They are completely unconcerned with why the student got a wrong answer, or if the answer is coincidentally right for the wrong reason. Retraining my students has been quite a challenge. Today they appreciate the need to show work, and they work hard to demonstrate that their work flows in a logical manner. Today, they show off their work instead of showing off the lack of work.

Even though Chinese teachers do not want to see work in the final product, they actually have high standards for the format of work. They train students from first grade in this format, and one reason they do not care to see the work in, say, fifth grade is they trust the student followed the format to get the answer the teacher does see, a dubious assumption at best.

Maria says she would ask primary student to verbally explain how they got an answer. Chinese teachers expect students to translate verbal (or written) math problem to mathematical expressions. Students learn to write “number sentences” from the very beginning. Perhaps there is a picture of a tree branch with three birds and two more birds landing. The child translates this picture in the number sentence “3 + 2 = “, and then writes “5 birds”.

I modify this approach a little. I expect children to write “3 birds + 2 birds = The idea of ignoring the units and then plugging them back in at the end leads to all kinds of confusion in later grades. Leaving the units out of the work is a major reason students persistently forget to square the unit when finding area. The math sentence should be 4 cm x 5 cm =

When students first begin studying area and perimeter, I make them write intermediate steps. In the case of area the intermediate step is: (4 x 5) x (cm x cm) = 20 cm2. In the case of perimeter, the intermediate steps might be (2 x 3) cm + (2 x 5) cm = 2(3 +5) cm = (2 x 8) cm = 16 cm. There are many types of problems where keeping track of the unit is vital. An early example is division, especially division with remainders. Often the unit for the quotient is different from the unit for the remainder. Knowing the difference is the key to understanding the solution.

I also require the box. The box makes the number sentence a complete sentence. Later, we will replace the box with a variable, and later still the variable may appear somewhere besides the end. Take this problem for example: There are 5 birds in the tree. After a certain number fly away, there are 2 birds left. How many birds flew away? I expect children to translate this sentence to math as written, without doing any preliminary math in their heads. Thus “5 birds - = 2 birds”.

Most teachers have the children write this math sentence as 5 birds - 2 birds = 3 birds. Doing so requires the students to do some math in their head first. The purpose of the number sentence is to accurately translate the problem to math terms. The number sentence must follow the story. The number sentence for a multi-part story should incorporate all parts into one number sentence. When problems become more difficult, the ability to translate the story to math as written becomes essential. The crucial part of solving a math problem is the number sentence. When the number sentence is correct, absent any silly mistakes in the work, the solution will most certainly be correct.

Finally, I require the students to answer the question with a complete sentence. The purpose of answering the question is to help student differentiate the solution from the answer. For example the solution to the question, how many cars do we need for the field trip might correctly be 5.2 cars, but the answer is 6 cars.


The work for a word problem needs to have three parts.

1.  A translation of the word problem into a complete math expression that includes the units and follows the story.

2. The arithmetic which tracks the units all the way through to the solution and may include intermediate steps for as long as necessary for mastery.

3. The complete answer to the question.


Math Expression: 10 x [$10.50 – (2/5 x $10.50)] = n

Work: 10 x {$10.50 – [($10.50 ÷ 5) x 2]} = n

10 x [$10.50 – ($2.10 x 2)] = n

10 x ($10.50 – $4.20) = n

10 x $6.30 = $63.00

Answer: Annie's total bill is $63.00 or Annie paid a total of $63.00 for the shirts.

Well-trained fifth graders have no trouble displaying their work as in the sample. This vertical work format, started in first grade, gives the students excellent preparation for mathematics involved in algebra, chemistry, physics and calculus. In fact, starting in third grade, I often have students format their work in two vertical columns, the second column for the math property used, as in this simple sample:

Problem: There are 5 birds in the tree. After a certain number fly away, there are 2 birds left. How many birds flew away?

Number Sentence: 5 birds – n = 2 birds


Arithmetic     Property
5 birds – n = 2 birds     given
             + n              + n     both sides rule
5 birds + 0 = 2 birds + n     additive inverse (opposites rule)
5 birds = 2 birds + n     additive identity
-2 birds = -2 birds + n     both sides rule
3 birds = 0 birds + n     math fact/additive inverse
3 birds = n     additive identity

Answer: Three birds flew away.

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